Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Interview Wednesdays: Mick Sowry

For many of you, Mick Sowry needs no introduction. He is a friend to a lot of us, even if we've only met him through his Safe to Sea blog. No doubt you already know that his film, Musica Surfica, won Best Feature at the New York Surf Film Festival last Fall.

After thoroughly loving the film Saturday night at the Ocean Film Festival in SF, Jay and I had a few questions. Thank you for taking the time to answer them, Mick.

400+ audience on Saturday night in San Francisco

Musica Surfica

As the writer and director of Musica Surfica, did you actually come up with the idea of the finless surfing and music collaboration, 'Musica Surfica' or was that idea already planted between Australian Chamber Orchestra's leader, Richard Tognetti and surf legend, Derek Hynd?

If the idea had already been planted, how did you become involved from the very beginning and what drew you to this story?

The idea began in Richard and Derek's friendship, which in turn began 10 odd years ago when Derek was still with Rip Curl. Way back then they tried to do something together, with mixed results - as the surf community was perhaps not ready for it. But it bubbled away and, at the behest of one of the ACO board members, they kept the ideas generating and eventually Derek came up with the term 'Musica Surfica'. (A nod to an Australian classical concert series called Musica Viva).

Derek Hynd

Independently, I'd begun research filming and interviews on a surf related project of mine. I'd been aware of Richard T. for many years and took a punt, contacted him explaining my story. I asked if he'd be interested in doing the sound design, as I wanted to break the mould in that area and his depth of knowledge, and staggering talent, fit the bill. That he agreed floored me, but I wasn't to argue.

That began a sporadic email ping-pong that ended in a phone call asking me to come along to a concert, check it out and meet afterward.

This was our first meeting and there, walking through the streets of Melbourne, he asked if I'd like to come to King Island with Derek and a bunch of very good surfers, and film them attempting a week of finless exploration. He told me it was called Musica Surfica, they were going to play a bit as well, but didn't know where, it was all very disorganised - but for me the opportunity was too good to miss, though I still didn't quite get it.

I asked why, and he said he wanted to be able to play a concert that had the finless surfing filmed on the island, cut to a set of classical pieces, and then in concert played live to exactly the same music. Essentially live music to a surfing backdrop, but with the edit and the playing working together precisely.

I too asked 'why finless surfing', and that goes back to the relationship between Derek and Richard.

Derek had been surfing finless for about a year or so, his exploration with it beginning when attempting to teach a friend to surf, and wanting to engage his empathetic gear to understand what it was like to learn again. Something got his attention and he began riding the shore breaks of Sydney, persistence and talent paying off as he began to get very good.

Richard picked it up too, was gaining in proficiency, and together they felt they might be on to something.

l to r: Jed Done, Richard Tognetti, Mick Sowry

Classical music was naturally part of the mix as that is what Richard is, a classical musician... a great one, and one who is dedicated to getting it seen as something more than only for concert hall audiences.

The connection Richard made was that perhaps by drawing audiences in to see surfing in a classical setting, these atypical concertgoers might become inspired to engage with classical music on a more regular basis.

The finless surfing became an analogy for moving out of your comfort zone, to learn you need to do new things, not rehash the old. Essentially, the rewards of risk in creativity.

All this came out as we spoke and later night I wrote a treatment of what I thought it could be, as for me it was far more than just a surfing backdrop to a concert, and that treatment is essentially Musica Surfica, the film.

Of course I had to meet Derek, and get the money to do it, but with the help of the ACO management, and Foxtel, and later the Australian Film Commission, it was pulled together.

wall of boards

It seems we are noticing an increase in the return of alaias. Is it just a coincidence that your film came out at this time, or perhaps this is what is called a ‘collective consciousness’.

At the time I thought we were breaking new ground entirely, filmically, but I think Tom Campbell has begun some work with Tommy Wegener, though we were I think first to get it to screens, and of course Tom Wegener had been filming his early efforts himself I suppose.

Was it a coincidence...? I think more it was something that was happening and Derek had the foresight to invite Tom along, who in turn told me about the Joske family and their experiments, which rounded out the Australian contingent in ancient board experimentation. Perfection I suppose would have been adding Tom Pohaku Stone to the mix and getting it from a pure Hawaiian perspective.

I think the alaia's time, as an alternative form, has come... an awakening of new possibilities and it'll be very interesting to see where talented surfers take them. Growing a surfboard is timely though... isn't it?

Would you like to see more people experiment with earlier board designs? Is this something that interests you personally as well - is there a finless board in your quiver?

I suppose it's up to them, but I think the more we free people from the need to be seen to ride the 'correct' surf craft, the better and more fun filled the experience will be. I have a finless Derek made me, it's hard to ride but definitely a conversation starter when I take it out. I just wish I could do some of the things Derek manages to do so effortlessly. That he gets five or six go outs a week to my one or two I think will guarantee I'm no threat.

Derek Hynd, deep in thought

It was lovely to watch Tom Wegener shaping wooden boards and then listen to Richard Tognetti describing what it was like to be able to play with a Carrodus (which I learned is even more rare than a Stradivarius). It must have been even more lovely to film these masters.

That was one of the great pleasures of the time on the island. To see Richard and Satu playing in such an intimate setting... they are moments to treasure and everyone there recognized how special that night was. To have an instrument of the magnitude of the Guarneri del Gesu 'Carrodus' sealed the deal.... though I think those guys could play a saw and blow your mind.

The thing I've noticed with continued exposure to music of that standard is, like everything, the more you know the more you realise you don't know and the experience gets better. You appreciate it more as you comprehend more and more of what's going on.

As for watching Tom, he's just one of the most engaging people I've ever met, so happy all the time with that big smile of his, and his enthusiasm is infectious. That he was so lucid and knowledgeable about the history of the boards, and such a craftsman, was a great asset to us as well.

One thing we noticed during the screening in San Francisco is that when the musicians spoke about the surfers, the audience was quiet, listening…in reverse, when the surfers spoke about the musicians and how blown away and appreciative they were by the music, some of the audience laughed - inappropriately was our interpretation - the surfers were not saying anything funny, just expressing pure emotion - but the audience put a sort of false stereotype against the surfers. This could be that old misunderstood perception of surfers in the US - does Australia have that same stereotype of surfers?

Yeah, I've noticed that a couple of times too. We had pure, genuine guys telling it as they saw it without the benefit of being comfortable in front of the camera. For me though it was what was said, not the delivery. That people unused to classical music can communicate the depth of the experience successfully is enough for me... I think the surfer stereotype exists everywhere, but in Australia, people like Richard at least lift the image out of the ruck... to a degree, and as surfers get older and people see it is something that for some strange reason captures some people and holds them till the day they die. We know why, they wonder why and sometimes they try and discover what we've known all along.

Was it ever hard to film when you were seeing something on the other side of the lens that was blowing you away? Perhaps the Paganini piece or Derek doing 360s on the alaia?

Fortunately the filming was done by Tony and Jon, I was directing traffic so to speak which really meant let them do their thing, and wave spot for Tony a lot as sometimes the action was going on all over the place and choices had to be made. We missed some belters along the way, naturally. As for the concerts, naaa it was easy. Once we were set up I left them to it and enjoyed the show.



On the other hand, when we were doing the interviews I was often bowled over by the answers I was given and had to be on my toes to take those balls and run with them. That way you get far more than you planned and with Richard and Derek, I had great material pouring out.

One of my favorite moments of the film was when assistant violinist Satu Vänskä, rode an alaia and she moved her hips back and forth in a playful way, to show how much fun she was having. Did she grow up surfing, do you know?

Satu was a prominent Finnish violinist before she joined the ACO. She said to me she came to Australia to join the ACO and learn to surf, which she has done over the past four or so years. She doesn't ride an alaia or finless, just this big old weird thing Derek made - she loves it and has a ball. She is as gutsy as all get out though, and will think nothing of heading out at 8ft Bells. She speaks fluent Japanese (without an accent) as well as two or three other languages apart from English. She'd be scary if she wasn't so nice.

Another favorite moment is when a young teen surfer in the lineup, whom Derek described as 'not even a very good surfer', asked if he could have a try with the alaia - and promptly figured out how to surf the thing straight away, blowing everyone away.

Yes, young Sol turned out to be the star of the show in a way, and I think Derek was a little unkind with the 'not a very good surfer' comment, though it was Derek that gave him the board afterwards.

Since the film came out, is the same group of musicians playing together (besides their regular commitment with the ACO) and has their music continued to evolve?

Danny and Mike went on to tour with the ACO on our return, and I think remain in sporadic contact with Richard, but as with anything these are gigs that come and go. Both are very successful musicians in their own right, but I do know that the cross pollination that occurs with the mixing of styles has had a great response, with the exception of the odd purist looking down their nose.

photo: Sean Davey

The location seems very special. How much did King Island impact this project?

Without the loneliness of King Island it would have been a very different beast. To have it all to ourselves with a guide like Jeremy Curtain (Wire) who knew everything there was to know about wind, tide, swell and where not to stand made the film. And it was so beautiful, plus... we were very lucky with the weather.

Mick, did you get to surf with Derek Hynd?

I've had quite a few surfs with Derek now and they are an experience. He is a very eccentric, engaging guy and a lot of fun in the water. Hooting, directing traffic, and he could pick a good wave out of a mixmaster.

Your sons are young teenagers - what did they say to you when they first saw the completed film?

'Cool, Dad'.


You have new distributorship in the US and Europe. Does this mean I will be able to find Musica Surfica at my local surf shop soon? Hint hint, Mollusk SF.

We've just shipped a few hundred copies over so yes, get onto your local surf shop and get them to give Mutiny Media a ring.

Do you have plans in the works for your next film? If so, can you give us an idea as to what it’s about?

I do, as I'd like to finish what I started before Musica came along, which was a revisiting of a very influential surfing film and it's participants, forty years later. I must admit to being a bit gun shy now though as it's no way to make a buck and I have these mouths to feed. I am working on a couple of documentary ideas that are related to surfing but not specifically about it, and am also attempting a screenplay, but that is more a what if than when. I hope I do get to do more though as it has been quite a ride and is genuinely one of the most satisfying things I've done.

I did step out of my comfort zone, waaaaay out, and it worked. Not financially, but personally, though we would like both.

Musica Surfica is so educational and as our friend Mary said, opens your mind to possibilities - inspires one to perhaps try new things. It is such a beautiful film. One does not need to be a surfer or lover of classical music to enjoy this 50-minute gem of a film.

When I started this I wanted it to appeal to non surfers. I've always wanted to work with unexpected music and play with showing what we do in a new light. Where I couldn't believe my luck was that two men of genius asked me to throw my hat into their ring, and join them. What I managed to do, with a lot of help, (please look at the credits) was to make the most of a rare opportunity.


Anything you would like to add, Mick?


I suppose I'd like to say that without Simon Whitney and Richard Keddie, who backed me up as I staggered along, and Anne Carter, my editor, who sat and listened to my ravings for weeks and gave me such an immense amount of help, and of course Tony Brennan, Jon Frank and sound man Craig Johnson to capture the sights and sounds, there'd naturally be no film. And of course having Richard and Derek and the ACO trust a first time film maker to do this... I still shake my head about that.

Oh yeah, and thanks to all my bloggy friends for following the ride. They have been a great source of inspiration, believe me.

Mick surfing Winki

update: Mick *just* found out Musica Surfica won the Adventure Award at last weekend's San Francisco Ocean Film Festival!

5 comments:

Toddy said...

I'll say this, Mick is one of the more pleasant guys I've met in the last year. Super eager for creativity, super well spoken and just an all around nice guy as far as I've experienced.

And the film?
Well, it is so good I've yet to properly tell him.

Marisa and Creative Thursday said...

Jamie!! I'm so happy to have found your blog ~ thanks for always taking the time to comment on mine :)

It's such a thrill to learn more about your love for surfing. My boyfriend and I surf here in Los Angeles and south of here at San-O from time to time. This movie looks wonderful!!! and I also bought the song you mentioned in your post yesterday ~ it is such a pretty song!!

seamouse said...

Go mick go!

ras said...

agree with Toddy. Mick is one of thebest people I've ever met. Thanks for the film Mick and thanks for the great interview Luv.

rebeccajane said...

What good questions you asked!